Some young publishers of Kolkata, sat chatting at the College Street Coffee House about how to start a rendezvous of book lovers to give a boost to their publishing trade. The example of the Frankfurt Book Fair – a commercial trade fair of books – came up.
When the young publishers finally decided that a book fair could be organised, albeit on an experimental basis, seniors in the trade rubbished it. They felt that books were not commodities that could be sold in fairs. The youths persisted.
The Publishers & Booksellers Guild is formed. Sushil Mukherjea became its founder President while Jayant Manaktala became its first General Secretary.
With 56 stalls of 34 publishers, the first Kolkata Book Fair was organised on March 5, 1976, at the ground opposite Academy of Fine Arts, beside Victoria Memorial. The fair was inaugurated by the then state education minister, Mrityunjay Bandyopadhyay. The entry fee to the fair was 50 paisa. This was the year when Guild not only organized the book fair for the first time, but also participated in World Book Fair and the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The year 1979 was the bicentenary year of Bengali publishing. To commemorate this, Anandabazar Patrika organized a book exhibition-cum-fair on the ground opposite to Rabindrasadan from February 10.
Gradually the fair imbibed all the qualities of an international event. The gates of the fair began to be modelled on landmark structures from foreign countries, while the Guild office started looking like a replica of an Indian architectural marvel. The Guild started publishing names and details of all titles in print at the fair and a fair directory. A number of seminars and symposia became permanent features of the fair.
The seven year old Kolkata Book Fair got a retinue of visitors from the field of literature, the world over. The then Secretary General of International Publishers Association (IPA), Geneva, Mr Koutcowmow attended the inauguration ceremony of the fair that year. The previous year, Peter Withers, the then Director of Frankfurt Book Fair visited the fair. A prominent member of the Guild, Asoke Ghosh, got the Kolkata Book Fair its international accreditation. It was from this time onwards that the dates of the Kolkata Book Fair started being mentioned in the calendar of the IPA each year.
The book fair needed more space every year to accommodate the ever growing numbers of publishers. After sometime it became merely impossible to accommodate the fair in the ground opposite Rabindrasadan and Birla Planetarium. Hence, the Guild had to bring the fair nearer to Esplanade. The neglected greens adjoining Park Street and Outram Road became the new venue of this international event.
This neglected land was developed by Guild at its own initiative and cost.
Following the Frankfurt Book fair, now the Calcutta Book Fair started having a focal theme every year. First it were the Indian states that became themes. Assam was the first focal theme, followed by Orissa, Tripura, Bihar and West Bengal. The literature and culture of the respective state were highlighted.
The fair became international in its real sense. For the first time, the focal theme was a foreign country – France. Along with this change, another new concept was of Montemarte. It was a place in the fairground where eminent and promising artists come everyday to paint.
This year the fair was totally demolished by a violent outburst of fire on the 6th day and everyone suffered a huge loss. Thereafter on the initiative of the then State Culture and Home Minister of West Bengal Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the fair was re-constructed within 3-days.
The fire of 1997
The fair of that year was inaugurated by Jacques Derrida, internationally famed for his de-construction theory. After the fair was reconstructed, noted poet Annadashankar Ray joked that since we don’t believe in the de-construction theory, we have been able to re- construct the fair.
The fair was again organized according to its schedule with Britain as the Focal Theme and the fair was inaugurated by eminent scientist Richard Dawkins.
Bangladesh was the focal theme. After 27 years, Sheikh Hasina, the then Prime Minister of Bangladesh came to this city of literature.
The last time the book fair happened at the Maidan. Spain was the theme and Australia participated as Guest of Honour.
The last time the book fair happened at the Maidan. Spain was the theme and Australia participated as Guest of Honour. Preparation of the 32nd Kolkata Book Fair 2007 was at its peak which had Australia as the Focal Theme and USA as the Guest of Honour. Dark clouds had started hovering around the fair by then. A Public Interest Litigation was filed by some environmentalists against the fair at the Maidan. Calcutta High Court ruled a day before the inauguration that the book fair would have to move from the Maidan.
Meanwhile a big delegation of participants had had arrived from Australia, USA and other countries. The Guild was forced to dismantle the constructions at the Maidan and re-organised the fair at the Saltlake stadium. Only 10 acres of space was available against the 23 acres of land at the Maidan. Children’s pavilion, Montemarte and many other regular features had to be left out. The schedule of the fair had to be revised and the fair re-started from February 10. To worsen problems, the sky opened up delaying constructions.
Visitors complained of lack of transport to the make shift venue. The ground plan was also confusing. Booklovers however tried their best to brave the odds. A comparative study done later showed that only 8 lakh people visited the fair at the Saltlake Stadium against 25 lakhs of the previous year.
The Book Fair had USA as the Focal Theme and the fair was scheduled from 30 January to 9 February. It was inaugurated on 29 January.A Public Interest Litigation was filed on the ground of disrupting the environment against organizing the Fair at Park Circus.
On the 28 January, just a day before the inauguration, Hon’ble Calcutta High Court ordered that the Book Fair could not be organized at Park Circus Maidan. The Guild had to suffer a great loss of face as 67 delegates had already reached Kolkata from USA and from different Latin American countries.
Legal advisors of the Guild now felt that it was time to move the Supreme Court, otherwise all fair venues would come under PIL attack. Under this circumstance, the Guild, with its opinion of majority of members decided to postpone the 33rd International Kolkata Book Fair.
At this time, another group was formed who organized a fair named Boimela 2008 (Book Fair 2008) at Saltlake Stadium in the first week of March. The total footfall of that fair was 5 lakhs.
A debate between the efficacy of the two book fairs started.
A special leave petition was filed at the Supreme Court against the judgement of Hon’ble Calcutta High Court, which they termed as an impugned one. In other words, if someone wanted to file another PIL against the book fair, he had to first move the Supreme Court. To get the fair back to the Maidan, the then Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, wrote to the Union Home Minister. It as also observed that the construction work at Milan Mela was almost over. New land had been annexed to the existing campus, to make it of 18 acres. The 33rd International Kolkata Book Fair was held there.
It was decided that the four permanent halls of Milan Mela would have publishers of English and foreign language books while the outdoors will have regional publishers. The open ground was to have a Focal Theme pavilion, AC hall, Press Corner, Children’s pavilion etc.
Scotland was the Focal Theme that year. The gates were the replica of different architectural landmarks of that country. The Guild Office was constructed as replica of the Asiatic Society. A Theme Song for the book fair – Oi Daakche Boi (Books beckon), was created by Bickram Ghosh. The lyrics were by Sugato Guha, while Srikanto Acharjee, Lopamudra, Shubhamita, Rupankar, Rupam Islam and Ruprekha lent their voices.
After what seemed a never ending struggle, the 33rd International Kolkata Book Fair was inaugurated at the Milan Mela Ground. Among the noted foreign dignitaries was Dominique Lapiere, the writer ‘The City of Joy’. The overall turnover that year was Rs 17 crores.
USA was the theme country. The executive committee decided that if a person bought books worth Rs 200, the entry fee would be refunded. This naturally boosted sales.
Mexico was the Focal Theme. This was the time when an epoch making decision was taken by the Guild. It was alleged that Guild is making profit through the fair. The main source of Guild’s income was the sale of tickets. The Guild ruled that entry would be made free. This was not all. The Little Magazines were also given free space.
The rent controversy continued, but the state government intervened to give the Guild an NGO status. This meant that the Guild would be able to use the Milan Mela ground at the rate that the state government pays for organising its fairs.
This year a new event was organized during the Book Fair. Kolkata Literature Festival— A festival of literature modelled on the Jaipur Literature Festival and Edinburgh Literature festival. The three day festival was attended by eminent writers who converged to discuss and disseminate the latest trends in writing.
Kolkata Book Fair will continue to create history when it resumes, the 25th of January 2017 in its 41st installment.